I’m a pretty dyed in the wool auteurist and usually view films within the context of a director’s body of work, but I suppose there are exceptions. I’m not sure if I’ve ever written a review that didn’t mention the director at all but there are filmmakers like Jean-Marc Vallée or Joseph Kosinski who are anonymous enough that their contributions end up being the last thing you think about when you remember their films. On the other side of the spectrum are the directors who so thoroughly mold their films that they may as well put their names at the beginning of all their films’ titles. Such is almost certainly the case with Wes Anderson, a filmmaker who has over the course of eight films established an oft imitated but seldom matched style that can be instantly identified by anyone who’s in the know. That’s partly because Anderson has a really overt style and partly because he’s stuck to that style so consistently that many have accused him of being a one-trick-pony. There’s some truth to those accusations, but they’re also maybe a bit simplistic. Even if you’re using the exact same ingredients, a recipe can be dramatically changed by alterations made to the amount of each ingredient that the chef chooses to use, and it’s also the differences in quantities that differentiate the various approaches that Wes Anderson makes to each of his films.
Anderson’s newest film is a sort of tribute to early 20th century European adventure stories, and cites the writings of author Stefan Zweig as its primary inspiration. The bulk of the narrative revolves around a luxury hotel in a fictional Eastern European country called Zubrowka during the early 30s. The concierge at this hotel is a demanding but charismatic man named Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), who hires on a young man named Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) to be his lobby boy. Together, these two become embroiled in a crazy adventure after Gustave unexpectedly become the heir to a priceless painting that was owned by a recently deceased elderly woman that he had had an affair with at one point. This turn of events was a shock to her ridiculously evil son (Adrien Brody), who makes it his mission to stop Gustave from receiving this inheritance at any and all costs.
That’s the main story anyway, but it should be noted that this is all actually told through a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. That sounds confusing, but it doesn’t really matter. The point of doing this is simply to tell the viewer that all this craziness is brought to us through multiple layers of unreliable narration and that the whole thing should probably be viewed as a tall tale of sorts rather than a straightforward narrative. Anderson marks these different timelines by using different aspect ratios for each of them, and for the main narrative (which probably comprises more than 80% of the run time) he uses the 1.37:1 Academy ratio. I think this was mainly done in order to give the movie a sort of kinship to the filmmaking style of the era in which it’s set without having to film it in black and white (which wasn’t really an option, because a black and white Wes Anderson movie is nearly unthinkable).
Anderson uses a few other old-school filmmaking techniques as well, like matte paintings and miniatures, but I feel like he probably could have gone a bit further than he did if he really wanted to capture the look and feel of classic cinema. For the most part it just feels like another Wes Anderson movie but with a few added tricks. The one stylistic element that does feel really different is the film’s music, which is almost all supplied by an original score composed by Alexander Desplat. It’s a good score for the most part, and it makes sense that they’d take this approach given the film’s period setting, but peppy popular music is a pretty important part of Anderson’s aesthetic and the absence of it does leave something of a void.
Anderson has long populated his casts with a lot of name talent, but he’s really outdone himself with this one by casting no fewer than seventeen famous people in his film. The cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel is quite large and nearly every single speaking role (with the notable exception of Gustave’s lobby boy) has been filled by a celebrity. In another context this degree of stunt casting would be a complete distraction, but it mostly works because Anderson’s films are always inherently artificial endeavors and that’s especially true of this one. Anderson’s filmography can generally be placed on a spectrum of fantastical-ness that begins with the mostly realistic Bottle Rocket, goes through to movies like Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited which are Anderson-esque but still seem to take place in a world that is recognizably our own, and ends with films like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou which seem to take place entirely within Wes Anderson’s imagination. Were it not for his stop-motion animated project The Fantastic Mr. Fox I would say that this latest film is far and away the furthest movie down on this spectrum of Wes Anderson weirdness. I personally probably like Anderson’s grounded approach a little better, but I think he makes the fantastical approach work better here than he has in the past.
At the end of the day, all I can really say about The Grand Budapest Hotel is that it’s a lot of fun and that this fun is a type of fun that’s not easy to find anywhere else. It’s not a movie with any kind of real message it expects the audience to take away, and there isn’t much in the way of human drama at its center, and I wouldn’t even call it laugh out loud funny, but it still works as a sort of cultural roller coaster ride of interesting literary/historical allusions, funny characters, and sight gags. Despite having worked for nearly two decades and despite having many imitators, Wes Anderson still seems to be a really unique voice in American cinema and he gives his audiences experiences that they can’t find anywhere. Within the context of Anderson’s filmography, I’d probably rank The Grand Budapest Hotel somewhere in the middle, but a middling Wes Anderson flick is more worth seeing than many directors’ best works.
***1/2 out of Four